AusterityBy Mike Elliston
Set in the post-war period of 1945-51 when Britain faced an altogether different, but none the less harsh, period of austerity imposed on it by the newly elected Labour Government, “Austerity” by Mike Elliston aims to start a conversation because we think it’s time we all started talking (we don’t have to agree) at a time when we are on the verge of yet another “reassessment of the nation”. Whereas in 1945, austerity was a response to the strictures placed on the economy, hope did seem to spring eternal. In our time, though, from 2010 onwards, austerity has been on the end of the whipping arm of an ideology that blames the poor for their supposed tendencies to skive, scrounge and steal, but just like in 1951, there are many other factors at work that make us who we really are as a modern, civilised nation versus the one we think we are, or indeed the one we want the rest of the world to think we are.
Don’t miss this edgy, funny, politically charged, Brechtian and immersive piece of theatre. There will be audience Q & A sessions so you can have your say about how we should take this work forward!
Last night, I attended the opening night of ‘Austerity’, a new play written by Mike Elliston & Directed by Rosemary Hill. As usual for a ‘The Plays the thing’ production, the standards were extremely high with an attention to detail that would put productions with a much higher budget and longer rehearsal schedules to shame.
The show makes a big deal about pointing out that the cast is a combination of professional actors and a ‘Community Chorus’. The purpose of this is not realised until the post-play Q&A where the concept of touring a group of core professionals and integrating local actors/resources was floated. A concept that really would work with this play but may prove difficult when working with a less well known ‘Chorus’. That said, the quality of the acting was seamless between the two and without a programme, I would have been hard-pressed to identify who was in which group .
The library location was (once I knew the objective) perfect for the piece, recreating the community atmosphere of a post-war sing-a-long whilst utilising and promoting a community space that otherwise would go unnoticed. Hosting this show in a theatre would have been a detriment to the whole production.
The set was simplistic, yet effective with the most original use of a corrugated cardboard backdrop ever. Again, this simplicity endorses the austerity message whilst making it easy to tour with.
As with other Mike Elliston plays, there’s an immediate effect of the shows initial impact, which is followed by an aftertaste of questions. This morning I find myself googling various aspects of what I saw last night to gain more knowledge about the subjects and issues presented. Mike absolutely delivered on this in abundance – I may need to watch the show again, being better informed and in a different frame of mind.
The acting was sublime, an apparently flawless opening night with stellar performances from everyone involved. I literally laughed and cried through the entire show at both the absurdity of government policy and the harshness of reality portrayed by the individual stories relayed.
Finally, the production itself ….. A combination of original writing, high production values, a sensitivity to the space with humour and a few well written songs thrown in for good measure make this a most enjoyable way to spend an evening, whilst addressing some of the major issues affecting our communities today. This was brought home when representatives from the food bank relayed stories of how the play reflected MK real-life scenarios being played out daily all around us.
I have a new-found respect for this charity and will be paying more attention to them and others like it as I go through my daily routine. Hat’s of to ‘The Plays the thing’ for donating all the proceeds from programme sales directly to ‘The food bank’. If you see the show, buy a programme, you’re putting food onto the plates of people who need it.
The austerity of today draws parallels with the post-war austerity depicted in the play. There are still haves & have-nots, but the austerity of today is a much worse. Post-war austerity was public, it affected whole communities who had nothing, there was no food, no housing, no new clothes ‘Everyone was in the shit together’, because there was nothing – even if you had the money to buy it. Today, austerity is much more insidious. It affects individuals, families, streets communities in a much more personal way. The difference now is the shelves are stocked, the goods are there, people just cannot afford them.
Someone brought up the concept of touring this around schools – This is a great idea, kids need a history lesson and something like this backed up with a couple of school projects could go a long way to helping them appreciate the plight of others. I do my best to shield my kids from the effects of austerity – everyone would if they could, but they should be more aware and this is a great vehicle to do that.
Don’t take my word for it, go and see the play – buy a programme, have a cup of tea & enjoy the show.
Congratulations and Thanks to everyone involved in this production. A top notch production with a house-brick of a message wrapped in comedy and song thrown through the window of my ignorance.
You might be forgiven for wondering if ‘Austerity’ is – as the title could suggests – a stark socio-political drama. But while ‘Austerity’ does not shy away from truthfully pursuing the effects of austerity in Britain or the current political backdrop which holds austerity in context, it is also entertaining, stylish and utterly engaging. Weaving together elements of history with music, social commentary and satire, the humorous and the didactic, ‘Austerity’ is rich and rewarding from the outset.
One of the many joys of Mike Elliston’s script is its ability to draw clear parallels with the austerity of the past with the austerity of today in such a relevant and human way. Though politically rooted, it is the lives of the people which matter at every step, from the fate of the Shire family in the 40s and 50s, to the razor-sharp interrogation of the welfare state and the plight of the modern nurse. Never pushing a direct political standpoint into the audience’s lap, the script, instead, offers a measured, well-rounded forum for the audience’s own opinions to be drawn, again demonstrating an affection for humanity and all its flaws. These are challenged with subtlety and empathy.
Adeptly, the dialogue juggles gripping drama, ‘fourth-wall’-breaking audience address, satire and lyrical brilliance; lyrics which evoke the spirit of wartime song, carry sincere emotion, wit, humour.
In choosing to balance the impact of deprivation with 1951’s Great Festival, we see the endless hope which characterised the human struggle and counterbalances the sorrow and hardships depicted so sensitively. The festival plot also allows for further community link as the 1951 celebrations are brought to the people, much in the way the ‘Austerity’ production team aim to tour community spaces with the play – an aim to which this production is ideally suited.
In short, I found the Mike Elliston’s work to be astonishing – a drama which crosses time-periods cleanly, entertains, educates and moves the audience, employing a variety of dramatic styles and creating a thinking, involved audience. ‘Austerity’ ‘bottles’ the sense that, as in the 1950s, we are on the verge of something new – a dangerous but optimistic period of change. Whilst reflecting the austerity of the past, it has its finger fimly on the political and social pulse of today.
On the matter of the audience: the production is skilled at including them from the outset; refreshments served by actors in character; the aftermath of an air-raid introduced in and with the audience; actors address the audience directly and we are welcome to sing along to songs in the best tradition of community gatherings. The play keeps us on our toes and reminds us that – wryly echoing Osborne’s words at the Conservative Conference – ‘we’re all in this together.’ This is never more the case when the collective audience was moved (in some cases to tears) by the beautiful song which accompanied the loss of a member of the Shires family.
The music is a character of its own. The power of music in putting across sentiment or meaning is evident throughout ‘Austerity.’ Matched to the excellent lyrics, the music brings high emotion, further kisses to the era and makes a wonderfully subversive and jaunty counterpoint to the realisation that, then as now, we are in a ‘pickle, we’re in a stew.’
Acting is superb, and (I noticed) continually had audience members reaching for the programmme to find out about a performer. And each performer had their turn at igniting a scene. Before anything it else, it must be said that the inclusion of community actors is incredibly powerful and makes the piece so relevant to the audience. If ‘Austerity’ tours, I can imagine that the use of a ‘community chorus’ will give every community visited a sense of ownership. It must also be said that there were very few moments that the guest performers gave anything but excellent performances – most notably the two young actors portraying the Shire children. There were segments of powerful and naturalistic performance but there was also superbly-executed, stylised acting – particularly during the ‘benefits office’ sections of the play where satire and near-surrealism peeled back the absurdity of a very real and often destructive system. And then the sparkling banter and commentary by two fine female actors (the play has excellently-written female roles) which – though often extremely humorous – made some of the most incisive observations of all. The cast excelled at portraying characters in different historical moments with nuanced differences, even when the actor was playing two roles which were arguably quite similar; testament to the actor and the director that transitions back and forth between eras and characters were never confusing.
Having been lucky enough to see several plays directed and produced by Rosemary Hill, I find that her expertise and ‘trademarks’ are fully evident in ‘Austerity.’ Firstly, Rosemary has an enviable ability to create context (historical, political, personal) so that it is pervasive but not intrusive. She creates believable worlds (even, in this case, from the most minimalist of sets) using a subtle tapestry of sound, prop and direction. Rosemary uses the cleverly-chosen venue space to the full, surrounding the audience at times, giving that definite feeling of interactivity and even the claustrophobia of a character’s circumstances… at others, managing the swift interchange of performance styles and narrative time-periods so that the play flows perfectly. To manage the transition from naturalistic war-time narrative to modern-day satire and monologue, then switch to direct audience address in humorous dialogue loaded with political value…that’s difficult enough to verbalise, let alone direct smoothly! And yet Rosemary does, flawlessly. There is a sense that the play and the performance of it by ‘The Play’s The Thing’ are inseparable at the current time, both using the the strengths of the other to create success. In this sense, the direction of ‘Austerity’ reveals an absolute understanding of the playwright’s intentions and can therefore give the play subtlety, balance, confidence and
yesa contagious sense that the whole team loved every minute of their work together.
The performance has a clever austerity of its own – from the enormous Union Jack crafted from torn cardboard in a distinct nod to ‘make do and mend,’ to the stripped-back space, projection, the exposed lighting – we’re never distracted from the significance of the scenes by the comfort of illusion or plush production budget. This is Art with purpose. Art for the community. Art for our time.
Congratulations to all – ‘Austerity’ is unforgettable.
Another brilliant collaboration between the genius writer that is Mike Elliston & MK’s most eminent director, Rosemary Hill. Set in the post-war period 1945-51 when Britain faced austerity measures by the then Labour government, the play moves between then & 2010. It forces us to examine the differences between Austerity then and now. A truly thought-provoking and social piece of drama. The upshot of it was that it made me wish I was a better person, with a stronger social conscience but every day I am grateful for the NHS, however burdened, as it affords a quality of life for my son which he could not have anywhere else in the world. The highly professional cast, led by the huge talent of Carly Halse, of whom one cannot take one’s eyes off such is her star quality, engaged with the audience and moved effortlessly between multiple roles, perfect harmonies were sung, the costumes authentic, the staging simple but effective in the library space but above all, it made us think “are we better off now than we were then?” and really we are very, very fortunate to be living the lives we do have with all the opportunities and access to healthcare than many, worldwide do not have. I urge to leave your safe comfortable lives and see this show.
Nancy Stevens - MKFM
There’s something about attending a play in the Event Space at the Central MK Library at night, something that feels a bit cloak-and-dagger as you gaze up at the darkened building and sneak in through a side door. And as spaces for theatre productions go, there’s also something fittingly didactic about it too, like the audience have been called together for a covert meeting, a secret political gathering – and in some respects “Austerity”, the latest show by the excellent The Play’s The Thing Theatre Company is just that. Albeit with free and much-needed cups of tea.
It’s important to note that (as the programme outlines) this is a ‘Research and Development’ piece – “Austerity” is a new script written by Mike Elliston, who previously worked with The Play’s The Thing last year on a production of his play “Trailer/Trash”. I absolutely loved that when I saw it, so it was interesting to see this work in progress – although I did feel too that it was already very much realised.
On the surface, much of the story of “Austerity” is about the 1951 Festival of Britain – an event of which I must confess I knew little or nothing, so on that level alone it kept me engaged. But of course you always have to look past the surface, and that’s where “Austerity” really becomes thought-provoking. It was notable that in the programme the play is described as being about ‘aiming to start a conversation’ – I found that in retelling the events of 1945-1951 and the original ‘Austerity Years’ it was simultaneously drawing parallels with the current state of British society and highlighting the differences between then and now. (Also, maybe it was just me but I even felt a third parallel being drawn, one with the stonily unsympathetic days of Thatcher’s 80s – there were definite echoes of the overtly political theatre polemics of that time, perhaps suggesting how little progress society has made in many areas since?)
It’s rare that you see a script produced on the local circuit so densely packed with ideas – though by now I expect nothing less from The Play’s The Thing!
There was also an incredibly varied mixture of theatrical styles: friendly music-hall interjections from a confident double-act; the more naturalistic story which unfolded concerning the evacuee Shires family; bleakly stark modern-day sketches set in the sinister and absurd world of the job centre, the authority figure an unhinged commedia dell’arte Pantalone – quite literally a caricature! Touches of comedy, pathos, drama bubbled away throughout the entire show. And interspersed amidst all of this were the songs: evocative of those post-war days and fittingly played live, creating a suitably communal feeling throughout.
Incidentally, it may feel like I am being intentionally vague on character names and the performances of the actors – the main reason for this is the strength of the ensemble work on show. There were no stand-outs, all the actors performing equally well whether in one of the many named roles or as part of the more general supporting ‘chorus’. The ceaseless unfolding of the many dramatic strands required most of them to play at least three or four entirely distinct characters – and yet they were distinct.
Rosemary Hill’s direction not only made it feel like the cast were a fully integrated ‘company’, but it made full use of the space – the chorus actors regularly came out from behind the set and stood behind us to shout questions at other characters on the stage, or off to one side creating a beautifully immersive atmosphere during several of the musical numbers. All this added to the sense I described earlier of being ‘part’ of what was going on onstage. And I have to say that the wooden deckchair-style seats only added to the deliberate tone of austerity!
As further befitted the concept behind the play, Kevin Jenkins’ set was sparse and James Tearle’s lighting design spare – unshaded bulbs hung from the ceiling above the audience, and the backdrop consisted of torn cardboard shaped into a very rough Union Jack shape. There was a lovely moment near the start when a segment of that shape opened up and the Shires family cautiously emerged, post-air raid.
I don’t know what is next for “Austerity” following this production – but if you’re looking for an intriguing night that makes you think and might even teach you a thing or two, I’d recommend keeping your eyes open.
Congratulations to everyone at The Play’s the Thing for a terrific production! Austerity was a great show with a superb cast (absolutely bags of charisma!), clever design and a lot of thought-provoking content. As ever, Rosemary’s direction was inventive and very smartly created a cohesive and focused narrative out of vignettes taking place in different eras with different protagonists. The message couldn’t have been more timely and I loved that the production was hosted by the library, itself yet another target of the age of austerity. A great job well done!
Just like to say well done, a terrific production, ‘Austerity’ hit the nail on the head. Ian Roberts original songs really gave it a punch and the closing ‘Abide With Me’, could I ask how this was selected, so moving. Thanks again for a great Saturday afternoon. All the best to your terrific cast.
It’s not a play that shoves messages down your throat; rather, it presents situations, from the 1940s and 1950s and juxtaposes them with contemporaneous events, so that the audience can infer their own messages.
For me, it was deeply moving, looking at the sacrifices that the population made in WW2, and the (Labour) government recognition of those sacrifices. Then seeing the achievements of Atlee’s government being torn down and dismissed, with no thought for the consequences.
Churchill always hated the great achievement of the 1951 Festival of Britain, and Cameron/Osborne and their LibDem coalition partners, established an unnecessary austerity regime that has – and is having – dreadful consequences.
Austerity, henceforth, will always be a word of many meanings for different people.
Austerity – what a great performance tonight – and magnificent direction from Rosemary Hill. A very moving and illuminating play – and educational for those under the age of 20 who’d never heard the word ‘austerity’ before…
Watched this last night and found the play moving and disturbing [but in a good way]. Please, MK Folks, go and watch it tonight or tomorrow if you can. You won’t regret it. Brilliant acting, great songs by Ian Roberts and produced and directed by Rosemary Hill.
Thank you for once again providing a great afternoon of drama, entertainment, interesting historical facts, totally believable characters and thought provoking social issues which have all given us plenty to discuss on our journey back to South London! Please pass on our thanks to the writer, amazing actors the back stage crew and the composer of the songs – which really worked so well with the whole concept. I do hope you will be able to tour Austerity as I know it will be so well received throughout the country by people who are coming to terms with the new stage we are entering in this country’s history; it is such an interesting way to draw parallels between the 50’s and now, and like ‘I Daniel Blake’ should probably be part of everyone’s educational experience. Certainly well worth the rail fare from East Croydon! Thank you once again for all your hard work!
To all cast and crew for a very entertaining evening. I’m not usually so good with an all dialogue show as my concentration is so poor but I was totally gripped throughout Austerity by Mike Elliston and my concentration held tight. That’s how good it was. Fabulous set and costumes, brilliant acting and lovely singing too. Thank you to all.
Just watched @ace_southeast funded Austerity by Mike Elliston directed by @wilpena. It was just fantastic, @MKLibraries was transformed!
Lucy Bedford @MKArtsHeritage